One of my special memories of our family’s camping trip in Europe in 1985 was visiting the American military cemetery in Luxembourg where some 5,076 of our soldiers who gave their lives in WW II are buried. The scene was one of many symmetrical arced rows of shiny white crosses and clipped green, green grass. The overseas cemetery is just one of 25 (plus 27 memorials) that is carefully and respectfully maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commissions. Interestingly, right across the road from the American cemetery was a German cemetery for their soldiers who died in the same area during WWII. The crosses were gray and the grass was not mowed—quite a contrast! Some 218,000 American soldiers who died in WWI or WWII are buried overseas in one of these 25 cemeteries. The smallest is Flanders Field with 411 graves and the largest is Manila America Cemetery with 53,486. Most families had the option of bringing their loved one back to the United States for burial or for burial in Europe near where he/she died. Some 30% chose the latter.
We have also visited the 624-acre Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac River from Washington D.C. where approximately 400,000 are buried—those who gave their lives defending our freedom. What a moving scene to stand there and look upon the hundreds of rows of shining white crosses and the immaculately kept grounds, and to witness the marching of the guard before the tomb of the Unknowns. What an awesome sight to watch as he takes 21 steps, makes an about face, waits 21 seconds, and then walks 21 steps in the opposite direction. changing shoulders for his gun so that it is always on the shoulder away from the tomb. The 21 steps, of course, alludes to the twenty-one gun salute, which is the highest honor given any military or foreign dignity. (Twenty one is the sum of the digits in the year ‘1776’ in which we gained and declared our freedom as a nation). The guards are changed every thirty minutes, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, so chances are you will get to witness that as well when you visit Arlington.
Every cross in all these cemeteries across Europe and at Arlington—as well as many in thousands in local cemeteries across our nation—represents an individual—a son or daughter, brother or sister, father or mother—who paid the ultimate price to protect the freedoms which we have experienced in this great nation, freedoms which continue to be attacked, and always will be until Jesus comes to set up His righteous rule. The thousands of crosses remind us that “freedom isn’t free,” but comes at great cost. Interesting isn’t it, that the cross was—and is—chosen as the symbol to represent the life of the person who sacrificed his for us. Our military heroes (and heroines) gave up all their tomorrows so that we could have ours. The empty cross, of course, is the symbol of Christianity, representing the means by which God the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, sacrificed His life to set us free from the bondage to sin and to provide eternal life with Him in heaven.
Liberty has always been a cherished concept to Americans, ever since the patriotic call of Patrick Henry for liberty or death. It was also a burning issue with the Jews at the time of Christ as they lived under the oppression of the Romans. Many early Christians were actually slaves or were in prison for their faith (as are many today). All those in bondage have longed to be free, and wars and revolutions have been fought to gain freedom. But, the worst bondage of all is slavery to sin. No army can free a person from sin. It is only Christ who can set a sinner free. Christ died-–on a cross—for our sins, and through faith in Him, we can receive full pardon and liberty. Not only did Jesus pay the penalty for our sins through His shed blood, but through His resurrected life (thus the empty cross) living in us as believers, we can have victory over the power of sin as well. Paul wrote: “Knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin…having been freed from sin, you became slaves of righteousness” (Ro. 6:6,18). Jesus said, “And you shall know the truth (and He is the way, truth and life…Jn. 14:6), and the truth shall make you free…If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed” (Jn. 8:32,36).
Every Memorial Day we remember those who have died in the service of their country. “The story of America’s quest for freedom is inscribed in her history in the blood of her patriots” (Randy Vader). Just as we stop to remember and say “thank you” to those who paid the price of our freedom, we need to also pause often to thank the One who paid the ultimate price to set us free from the bondage of sin. Jesus even gave us a “memorial” by which to do that. He instituted the Lord’s Supper at the final Passover meal with His disciples by passing the bread and cup and saying, eat this and drink this “in remembrance of me… For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes” (I Cor. 11:24-26).